Book Write-Up: The Making of American Liberal Theology (1805-1900)

Gary Dorrien.  The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion (1805-1900).  Louisville, London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.  See here to purchase the book.

Gary Dorrien taught at Kalamazoo College when he wrote this book.  This book is the first of three volumes about American liberal theology.  This first volume focuses on the years 1805-1900, but the chapter on the Social Gospel also discusses events in the early twentieth century.  On page xxiii, Dorrien attempts to identify features of liberal theology: “Specifically, liberal theology is defined by its openness to the verdicts of modern intellectual inquiry, especially the natural and social sciences; its commitment to the authority of individual reason and experience; its conception of Christianity as an ethical way of life; its favoring of moral concepts of atonement; and its commitment to make Christianity credible and socially relevant to people.”

In this Book Write-Up, I will comment on each chapter, then I will offer a general assessment of the book.  This Book Write-Up will not be comprehensive, but I will comment on details that interested me.

Chapter 1: Unitarian Beginnings: William Ellery Channing and the Divine Likeness.

The Unitarians were actually rather conservative, as many of them were as concerned that German higher-criticism of the Bible negatively challenged Christianity.  They believed that it undermined the authority of the Bible, and they did not care for the biblical stories being treated as old-wives’ tales in classes.

This chapter tells the story of William Ellery Channing, an influential Unitarian preacher.  It covers the intellectual influences on him, such as Hume, who would also influence other liberal thinkers in this book.  Some liberal thinkers would embrace German idealism (i.e., the outside world is all in one’s head, or knowledge of the outside world is inaccurate) as a justification for a personal or rational inner religion, whereas other liberal thinkers would reject it. A related issue is whether miracles can divinely-authenticate the Christian message, or if the Christian message can stand on its own weight, on rational grounds.

Although Channing was impressive in the pulpit, he was personally reclusive, and I could identify with the latter.  Channing was sympathetic towards the anti-slavery agenda of the abolitionists, yet he felt that they were uneducated and self-righteous.  I often feel the same about the Left (the self-righteous part, not the uneducated part).  My favorite passage in this book is on page 49:

“[For Channing, t]rue religion is not about trembling in terror before an inscrutable transcendent sovereign…To honor God ‘is to approach God as an inexhaustible fountain of light, power, and purity.  It is to feel the quickening and transforming energy of his perfections.  It is to thirst for the growth and invigoration of the divine principle within us.  It is to seek the very spirit of God.”

Chapter 2: Subversive Intuitions: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, and the Transcendentalist Revolt.

Because the Unitarians were rather conservative and biblicist, the transcendentalists revolted against them.  Ralph Waldo Emerson would deliver his controversial Harvard Divinity School address, in which he criticized religious ritualism, encouraged people to find God by looking within, exalted nature, and treated Jesus primarily as a human being in tune with the divine rather than as a divine or exalted being.  Emerson was much more radical in his personal journal, however.  On page 72, Dorrien quotes Emerson’s critique of Jesus:

“I do not see in [Jesus] cheerfulness: I do not see in him the love of Natural Science: I see in him no kindness for Art; I see in him nothing of Socrates, of Laplace, of Shakespeare.”

Speaking for myself, I believe that I encounter wisdom when I read Jesus’ statements in the Gospels.  Still, I can somewhat empathize with Emerson.  The Gospels are rather sparse when they talk about Jesus: Jesus does and says things in the Gospels, but what was he really like personally?  Evangelicals talk about “knowing Jesus,” but there are times when I read the Gospels and wonder if they are helping me truly to know him.

Chapter 3: Imagination Wording Forth: Horace Bushnell and the Metaphors of Imagination.

Horace Bushnell treated language, especially religious language, as metaphorical for a deep religious and spiritual experience.  For Bushnell, religious language was limited, since people understand terms in different ways.  This was consistent with liberal theology’s tendency to emphasize spiritual experience or the spiritual life rather than doctrine.

Bushnell also wrote about the atonement.  He preferred a subjective model of the atonement, one that emphasized people’s moral or spiritual response to Jesus’ death, rather than seeing the atonement as a legal transaction that objectively removed guilt.  Still, Bushnell believed that Jesus’ death was vicarious, in a sense: God was assuming the burden of being human, the experiences of those who sinned (which is not to say that Jesus sinned), since that was a significant aspect of reconciliation.  Bushnell’s stance not only alienated conservatives but also fellow liberals, who thought that it reflected an anthropomorphic view of God.  Bushnell’s discussion of the atonement sheds light on liberal stances towards sin.  Whereas some might think that liberals trivialize or downplay sin, this book demonstrates that there were many liberals who did the exact opposite, and Dorrien argues that liberal emphases on subordinating the flesh was consistent with Victorian ideas.

The chapter also explores the thought of Nathaniel Taylor, who contributed to the New Haven theology.  New Haven theology sought to be a liberal Reformed theology.  Taylor believed, for instance, that humans had an inclination towards sin, yet he rejected the Reformed concept of total depravity.  For Bushnell, people still had a choice not to sin.

My favorite passage in this chapter concerned Henry James, Sr.’s negative reaction to Bushnell’s view on love.  On page 172, Dorrien states:

“…Henry James Sr. pronounced Bushnell’s construal of Christian love ridiculous.  Love is neither heedless nor essentially sacrificial, he lectured; it has nothing to do with pretending to care for bad people; it pays attention to consequences and is always proportionate to merit.  To claim that love responds to evil with self-sacrificing care was a perverse ‘outrage upon all love.  Divine as well as human.'”

James’ critique took me aback.  He had the same reservations that I do about what is commonly portrayed as “Christian love”: sacrificing oneself, pretending to like those one despises, etc.  Still, if love is to be a response to merit, does that not undermine grace, which we all need?  Wouldn’t we prefer a belief in unconditional love, even if we struggle to live up to that?

Chapter 4: Victorianism in Question: Henry Ward Beecher, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and the Religion of Reform.

Henry Ward Beecher was the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of the famous anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Beecher was a renowned preacher and abolitionist in his own right, but he ran into scandal when he slept with a friend’s wife.  Beecher recovered from the scandal, whereas the friend retreated into obscurity, left Christianity, and focused on playing chess.  Sad story!

This chapter discusses the divisions between African-Americans and feminists.  Elizabeth Cady Stanton was appalled that uneducated African-Americans were getting the franchise whereas women were not, whereas Friedrich Douglas thought that African-Americans were in a worse position than women and thus needed the franchise more urgently.

Chapter 5: Progressivism Ascending: Theodore Munger, Washington Gladden, Newman Smith, the New Theology, and the Social Gospel.

This chapter covered interesting territory.

First, the chapter quotes a profound statement by liberal Anglican preacher Frederick Robertson: that “man is God’s child and the sin of man consists in perpetually living as if it were false.”

Second, the chapter summarizes Theodore Munger’s attempts to harmonize evolution with Christianity.  For Munger, evolution was consistent with monotheism, since the same natural laws apply to all natural living things; under polytheism, by contrast, different principles operate, as gods compete with each other and have their own agendas.  Munger also highlighted religious and moral progress that occurred throughout history.

Third, the chapter set forth Washington Gladden’s Social Gospel.  Gladden was skeptical of socialism.  His hope was that business-leaders could be persuaded to follow the Christian path and to share their profits more equitably with their employees.

The chapter also explored the “Manifest Destiny” attitude among many Social Gospel advocates, as they believed that Anglo culture could civilize the rest of the world.  While a number of Social Gospel advocates were initially isolationist about American entry into World War I, they came to embrace Woodrow Wilson’s professed desire to make the world safe for democracy.

Chapter 6: Enter the Academics: Charles A. Briggs, Borden Parker Browne, Biblical Criticism, and the Personalist Idea.

This chapter talked a lot about the inspiration of Scripture.  Rather than regarding the Bible as inerrant in all details, including history and science, some of the prominent liberal thinkers in this chapter had alternative conceptions of inspiration: that God inspired the authors of Scripture by elevating their religious insights and perceptivity, even though they still reflected the prejudices of their time; that the Scripture is infallible on how to be saved, not history and science; and that historical-criticism can highlight God’s activity through the vicissitudes of history.  On page 347, we see Briggs’ view that such ideas were actually more faithful to the Puritan beliefs than were the inerrantist ideas of Warfield and many Princetonians.

Chapter 7 offers a concise summary and effectively ties together the trends discussed in the book.

The book was a compelling read, especially because it described liberal thinkers’ lives and ideas.  I felt a kinship with them, as they wrestled with the same religious topics with which I wrestle (e.g., the character of God, the inspiration of Scripture, etc.).  Often, the origin or development of trends was not adequately explored or explained, but the book was effective in describing how specific people responded to the trends and participated in the discussions.  The book was rather lacking in explaining how liberal thinkers justified their views with Scripture, particularly when it came to a belief in post-mortem opportunities for salvation.  Dorrien said that Channing offered exhaustive Scriptural defenses for his positions, yet Dorrien did not share what those defenses were.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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